The “found footage” format has felt played out for years, but every once in a while, somebody finds a fresh twist to put on it. Writer/director Robbie Banfitch certainly has. His movie The Outwaters is set in the Mojave desert – certainly not an obvious place for such a tale. This ultra-bloody horror film, which gets a theatrical release February 9 before settling into its permanent home on the Screambox streaming service, is similar to the recent Skinamarink, in that both go for mood and atmosphere over narrative. Plenty exists here to disturb viewers, although the limitations of found footage are still present.
The opening is audio from a frantic 911 call over a black screen. A woman is heard hysterically crying as the operator attempts to calm her down. Then we're told that what follows is the raw footage contained on three memory cards that were found in the desert. They tell the story of four friends – Robbie Zagorac (Banfitch), his brother Scott (Scott Schamell), Ange Bocuzzi (Angela Basolis), and Michelle August (Michelle May). Michelle is a singer, and the gang heads out into the desert to film a music video for one of her songs. Tents are set up, locations are chosen, shots are completed.
Something weird happens at night. A loud booming noise repeats itself. It sounds like a cross between thunder and an explosion. Since no other humans are around, the presence of that noise is particularly ominous. Robbie's camera also catches a shadowy image that appears to be a large man holding an ax. Then all hell breaks loose, literally. The group is abruptly plunged into a hellish experience that leaves them bloodied, disoriented, and unable to escape.
What happens to them? It wouldn't be fair to say. I'm not sure I could even if I wanted to. The Outwaters avoids an outright explanation, allowing viewers to put together the pieces for themselves. What can safely be conveyed is that the area of the Mojave they're in is not typical desert, and what they encounter is not of our world. These people have truly landed in “hell on Earth.”
Once the terror begins at roughly the 40-minute mark, the movie becomes intentionally disorienting. We only see bits and pieces of what's happening, many of which don't flow naturally from one to the other. There's a whole lot of blood, along with multiple grisly images. At one point, two words are spoken, and then the visuals become surreal. Banfitch shows enormous creativity in how he stages some of these shots. The most effective, despite its simplicity, is an upside-down shot of Michelle running in panic across the desert. Inverting sky and land, then adding the fast movement of running, proves more unsettling than you'd expect. Combined with superb sound design that makes everything sound hostile, the impact is like having a hallucination delivered straight from Satan himself.
That, however, leads to the big limitation with The Outwaters. Found footage movies have a tendency to devolve into dimly-lit shaky-cam footage where it's impossible to tell what you're looking at. A significant percentage of this film's second hour is shot in darkness, with only a tiny circle of light from the camera providing illumination. Not being able to see very much led me to become deeply frustrated, despite my admiration for the overall style. The final three minutes contain a profoundly shocking act on one character's part, but because it wasn't more clear what had happened, the reason for this person's behavior is confusing. That, in turn, takes the sting out of the finale.
What's undeniable is that Robbie Banfitch is a director to watch. I look forward to his next film, and the ones after that. He's got ambition. The Outwaters is a little too long and a little too nebulous to make the sort of impact it wants to, though. With a tiny bit more clarity in its story, the movie might have been hall-of-fame found footage.
out of four
The Outwaters is unrated, but contains graphic violence, and strong language. The running time is 1 hour and 50 minutes.